Indeed I think it remarkable that Christians are permitted to marry. After all, marriage (particularly in our culture) threatens to destroy the love that constitutes the church…just to the extent that marriage in modernity represents a desperate attempt to force and forge an intimacy that can rescue us from our loneliness, marriage for many becomes their church. We should not be surprised it does so because marriage becomes the only relationship left in our world that requires us to face the reality of our self-centeredness and pride.
~ Stanley Hauerwas ~
It’s wedding season again, and due to an untimely departure of another priest for Rome, I am the celebrant at more weddings in this season of nuptials than ever before. We all know that fewer people are getting married in our culture than in previous generations, and that those who do marry are tending to get married later rather than earlier. Apart from the obvious controversy surrounding the recent redefinition of marriage by our supreme court, this summer has been a time which has led me to frequent reflection on the nature and meaning of Christian marriage.
Man is made for communion. In an essay I recently read from Ratzinger, our former pope draws our attention to the fact that the Greek word koinonia can be translated both as fellowship (in its meaning as a community of persons) and communion (in its double meaning as community, and simultaneously Eucharist). The point is that at the very center of our faith, and our life as human beings is the word communion. Frankly, I desire nothing more than communion; not merely being the presence of other human beings, no shallow communion, but a mutuality, a life lived in relation to others which is characterized by that most mystical of all words love. This is what underlies our obsession with marriage, the reality that God made us for communion with others, and this should come as no surprise to anyone who takes seriously the idea that we are made in the image and likeness of a God who is a Trinity.
There is however a problem; we’re all lonely. One might be tempted to think that loneliness is the habitat of the celibate, the chosen desert for those who forsake marriage because of a mysterious and magnetic “call” on their lives. If we’re honest however, we’re all lonely, at least for significant periods of life; indeed I think there is perhaps no greater loneliness than that which married people experience when they lose the intimacy they once had, with no idea or even hope of how to regain it. We will do almost anything to not be lonely. We’ve invented the term FOMO (fear of missing out) as part of our texting and technical shorthand. We spend hours on Facebook to feel connected, and when we don’t we’ll distract ourselves with everything from television and movies to drugs and 2nd rate music just to avoid the silence which just might say “you’re all alone”.
Sometimes you should feel alone. When we’re distracted and in a state of constant stimulation from our media driven society, we don’t feel our hunger for communion as much. You were made for communion, and I think Satan doesn’t want you to know that – he wants you to settle for the cheap substitutes that come through your computer, phone and TV screen. I have often heard it repeated that Americans feel like they relate to TV personalities more than actual people in their lives; I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t have time to do the research right now, but I think we’re all tempted to counterfeit communions – the cheap distractions and pseudo-relationships that make us feel almost like we have real communion with others.
This brings me to my first big point I want to make: real communion with other human beings comes at a price. As usual, our friend Cardinal Ratzinger says this better than I ever will:
Without conversion, without a radical inner change in our thinking and being, we cannot draw closer to one another. For even the simplest intelligence must realize that barbarization cannot be the path to humanization. But when man is barred from every path that leads within, from every means of purification, where instead, only his envy and his greed are rekindled, there barbarism becomes method.
Perhaps the greatest “art” a person is capable of is relation with others; but we only learn this art by overcoming our own selfishness and immaturity; barbarians and narcissists don’t make good friends or spouses, they have never learned that the world is really not all about them.
This means that there is a dynamic relationship between individual and community; ironically, to become a person who lives well with others, you must learn how to be a good individual. Becoming good however, only really happens in relation to others. Josef Pieper puts it like this: “the stronger power of relating corresponds to a higher degree of inwardness; the power to relate is greater to the same degree as the bearer of that relation has ‘inwardness.” To have real conversation, you must have embraced silence, if we sit in silence and prayer we begin to care more about the things that really matter – things like truth and goodness and authentic beauty; each of us was made for these things, and if we don’t really care about them we will never help others to fulfill their purpose in life.
Pieper’s point is that being a person of prayer, or even a natural sort of pondering on the mysteries of life is a necessary condition for interacting on any level of depth with other human beings. Allow me to make another analogy; a cello finds its greatest meaning in the context of a great symphony. Imagine however if a cellist came to play in an orchestra but wasn’t really prepared, didn’t really know his instrument. His lack of preparation would mean an exclusion from the communion of those playing in the orchestra – personal responsibility, discipline and maturity make it possible for musicians and for people to enter into something that is beyond their own sphere, something which unites them to others – into communion. A personal commitment towards truth, towards selflessness, towards God is the prerequisite condition for entering into the great symphony of communion with our fellow Christians. Now of course, we were welcomed in at baptism and grace precedes all our efforts etc., but at a certain point of life we must cooperate – and if we don’t we miss precious moments of practice to become great cellists and violinists who can someday give ourselves in that communion of music that is so much greater than a lone cello playing by itself.
Notice that in this symphony all the individual members have surrendered themselves to the conductor, and to the composer’s work. All of them have come to see in the symphony a work worthy of surrendering to – the violin relinquishes her own freedom of playing whatever she might decide, as do the clarinet and the French horn etc. This is true for being a Christian, and it is also true of marriage; I am convinced that the reason so many marriages fail (as well as attempts at Christianity) is that people come to marriage ill-prepared. We train our children to pursue power, prestige and pleasure, as well as selfishness in general; in other words they haven’t learned their instrument, and then, because of our habituated selfishness, we will never surrender our freedom, we’ve learned to value ourselves above anything else. Balthasar (from whom this analogy is stolen) says this: “when they make their promises, the spouses are not relying on themselves – the shifting songs of their own freedom – but rather on the form that chooses them because they have chosen it.” They choose the melody and structure of the symphony, not one of their own making.
Finally, I want to return to a remark from the quote which introduces this post. Hauerwas points to the danger of making marriage into a form of idolatry. Communion is what saves human beings – but not communion with just anyone - communion with God. Communion with one’s spouse can become a sort of substitute and counterfeit religion; but in that case, it will always limp – it can never fulfill the transcendent longings of the human soul. Marriage can also however be a tremendous help on the way to communion with God. If spouses learn that love means surrender, if they are open to children and the transformation they bring, if they learn that the union of hearts means the death of selfishness; in that case, marital love becomes a specific and beautiful path to salvation, a human love which opens into a divine one.
May God bless all our married couples, may their love for each other save them from pride, and may it find its fulfillment in the eternal love and communion of the blessed and glorious Trinity